Dictionary Deconstruction: Politically Correct

I’ve got two words that I hate stuck in my head this morning. The phrase is not one that I use in my vocabulary as I have yet to see any evidence of its value. Whenever I hear someone say it, my eye twitches a little and I die a little inside.

Those words are: politically correct.

I don’t know what the official definition is, but if I had to make one up for the dictionary, it would look a little something like this:

politically correct. Adj.
 1. Acting or speaking, using carefully selected buzzwords, in order to mask one’s bigotry.
 2. The state of being full of shit.

There is nothing – nothing! – that is gained from the practice of  thoughtlessly replacing one’s problematic speech and actions with “approved” speech and actions. If you do not take the time to think about why certain ways of speaking and acting are hateful, if you do not listen to the people who are hurt by your speech and actions, then you are just going to keep doing it. You can use all the right words and still silence and dehumanize others with your speech.

As far as I can tell, a lot of folks are perfectly content to keep on acting in dismissive, hurtful, and oppressive ways. They don’t care about the impact of those words or actions – they just care about how others perceive them and whether they’ll be getting a gold star this week.

This is what I hate about PC. It’s not about changing oppressive patterns of behavior. It’s not about examining the root causes and the effects of marginalization. It’s not about stepping back and allowing the people that we have silenced to finally have the space to speak.

It’s about looking good. It’s about fitting in. It’s about patting yourself on the back for being such a good ally, even as those you supposedly have allied with scream their frustration and hurt at your back (and yes, you have turned your back on them). It’s all about You The Privileged instead of the Oppressed, and any anti-oppression work that centers privileged people over marginalized people is nothing short of a fucking farce.

PC is not something that we as activists should be accepting or working towards. PC is a lie, a soothing glamour, an exercise in deception. 

Real anti-oppression work requires introspection, humility, and a complete rewiring of our ism-indoctrinated minds. PC, on the other hand, just requires that one cares enough about one’s image to use the “Replace word with” function in MS Word before clicking Publish.

I don’t think I have to tell you which kind of work is actually going to change the world. (Hint: It’s not the one that can be solved by merely using keyboard shortcuts in your word processing program.)


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10 Responses to “Dictionary Deconstruction: Politically Correct”

  1. choleandjo Says:

    I think African American is a good example of PC language that doesn’t do much for anyone. African American not only refers to a race of people (and sometimes incorrectly) but also immediately distinguishes black AFRICAN American folks from just plain old “American” (white) folks. It is inherently separatist, which is what the book I’m reading also pointed out.

    It’s also another example of the importance of asking people how they identify. Though it’s also probably more of a thought exercise for black folks than many white folks. There was never a time in my life where I wondered if I should be called German American. Though on the other hand (and another point altogether), my ancestors absolutely made a choice to come here (perhaps influenced by circumstance but certainly not by force).


    • August Says:

      Whether “African American” does any good for black folks is up to those folks who choose to identify that way, I’d say. I actually pretty much HATE the term, as does my mother, but our reasons (and my mom’s reasons are not the same as mine) stem primarily from our individual experiences as black women in America and our interactions with white people and white racism. There are some (though I’m not sure if it’s many) black folks for whom the term has value, and it’s not up to me (or especially white folks – even Tim Wise) to tell them whether or not it does anything for them. Same goes for self-identified Asian Americans, Native Americans (now THERE’S a whole other can of worms), etc.

      All that said, whenever a strange white person is talking to me face to face and refers to black folks as “African Americans,” it makes me think that they must not know any black people in real life. It just sounds so clinical.

      • choleandjo Says:

        Interestingly enough, it wasn’t the Tim Wise book but the marriage book that this came from. I just thought it was so interesting to hear how even though it is a term that I feel is often primarily used to refer to race (particularly among white folks), it is also very OTHERing in a cultural / ethnicity kind of way. You’re not AMERICAN, you’re AFRICAN American. You are so different we have to identify you as such. We are a melting pot, but you didn’t melt. That kind of thing.

        I think people say African Americans to black people they know more because there is a perception that if you say the wrong thing, that person is going to hate you forever and “African American” IS the PC term (which is why I commented to this particular blog instead of just talking to you about it). Which may be making a big assumption that people can’t speak up for themselves and say “I don’t like that term’ but at the same time, whether through fear of repercussions for saying it, discomfort with discussion about race in general, or disappointed apathy (is there such a thing?), or something else altogether, I don’t often hear of black folks correcting people (and I’m pretty sure that you and your mom’s aren’t the only ones who feelt hat way).

        • August Says:

          I never correct anyone when they call me African American, be they white or black UNLESS we are specifically talking about the subject, like you and I are doing right now. Explaining my reasons would require that the person I’m talking to have at least a 101 level understanding of race and oppression, and since the average random white person I encounter on any given day doesn’t, I choose not to go into that battle. It’s just not worth the effort.

          Some time soon I’ll likely put up a blog explaining my reasons for not identifying as African American.

    • August Says:

      Oh, and I just changed comment nesting so that it can go 5 deep instead of just 3. The last few comments I responded to you on Mumbling & Grumbling just showed up beneath your comment instead of replyng to it, which I found obnoxious and made it look like I was responding to myself!

    • August Says:

      I’m really glad you posted this comment because it made me think, “Okay, so why DO the black folks who identify as African American choose that identifier?” Which is not a point of view I’d ever bothered researching before. And so I did some Googling and found this Racialicious article: “Why ‘African American’ IS The Most Accurate Term.” I disagree with a lot of it, but it’s still interesting (and there are a ton of comments, which I’ll need to spend some time reading later), and I liked this bit which partially ties into my own distaste for the phrase (emphasis mine):

      However, one might argue, as McWhorter does, that “African American” is a better label for a person who emigrated from an African country, the so-called “actual African.” Today, over 1 million black people in the United States are from Africa; and yet, I argue, the term “African American” is not the most accurate signifier for these subjects. Why? Because “African” is too abstracted for them. That is to say, an immigrant from Nigeria is a Nigerian-American, just as one from Ireland is an Irish-American. Because the immigrant from Nigeria knows he is from Nigeria, he should be hailed accordingly. This recognizes two realities of geopolitical modernity: one, the importance of the formation of nation-states; and, two, that most black people born in the United States do not know precisely from where they come. This is how one distinguishes a descendant of slaves from an African immigrant from, say, Kenya: the former is an African American, the latter is a Kenyan American; whereas the Kenyan knows he from Kenya, the African American is from everywhere and nowhere in Africa at the same time.

      One of the reasons I don’t identify as “African American” is because too many people already think that Africa is a homogenous country (not a CONTINENT – I’m looking at YOU, Palin) with a single unified culture, language, religious practice, and social structure. I don’t feel that the term “African American” recognizes this fact aptly enough, although I definitely see the dude’s point about Schrodinger’s Heritage.

      • choleandjo Says:

        It’s late so I skimmed a little, honestly, but that is an interesting point. Not only is it vague, but it also allows the person using the phrase to lump everyone together and not even take a second consideration of the variety of cultures etc.

        It’s an odd term because it is a ethnic/cultural/heritage term that has been morphed to describe a whole race of people. I think that is where some of my discomfort lies (I’ve always thought it was a weird term). It just doesn’t fit. We’re talking about skin color and using where someone is from. That in itself is sort of doubly separatist… you are X color (which is generally different from mine but perhaps also descriptive (“It was a white guy who came into the store” or whatever) so you also come from X place. It doesn’t leave room for gray…

        • August Says:

          I agree, it conflates skin color with heritage, which isn’t always accurate. There were quite a few people in the comments that said “Black is my race, African American is my ethnicity.” Which is kinda how I’ve mostly seen black folks use it, while I’ve mostly seen white folks use African American = race or black = race, but make no mention of a particular ethnicity when it comes to black Americans.

          • choleandjo Says:

            Or the ethnicity is, like you said “African”

            But the PC term is used pretty much exclusively for race and when people say they are being PC about race, that’s what they usually mean.

  2. Garen Says:

    I did wonder about this a little when I was dating a black girl. She tended to avoid any terminology whatsoever, and referred to other black people as “my race”. She was kind of… really odd in a lot of ways though, so I wasn’t sure if it was an individual thing or not.

    Most of the people I know (myself included) tend to use the term “black”, in much the same way we use “redheaded” or “tall” (ie, as part of a useful physical description for a particular person), but I admit, most of my friends are white or Asian. The few black people I do know tend to ignore it, so it’s hard to say if we’re being offensive or not.

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